Breaking the chrysalis: Whistler’s early work reveals non-conformist beauty

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James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturne” (1878) is one of the works currently on display at The Fralin. Courtesy of the Fralin Museum of Art. James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturne” (1878) is one of the works currently on display at The Fralin. Courtesy of the Fralin Museum of Art.

The butterfly of “Becoming the Butterfly,” The Fralin Museum’s current exhibition of etchings and lithographs by James Abbott McNeill Whistler refers to the stylized butterfly that Whistler used to sign his work and the exhibition. Curated by Emilie Johnson, the show provides a succinct yet effective window into Whistler’s evolution as an artist. This is the first of two shows at the museum focusing on the American 19th century master’s prints (through April 28). The second (opening April 30), will feature portraits.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834, Whistler began studying art when he was 9 in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, an eminent civil engineer, was employed by the Moscow-St. Petersburg Railway. Following the death of his father when Whistler was 15, the family returned to America.

While attending his father’s alma mater, West Point, Whistler was an indifferent student in all but drawing and did so badly in chemistry, that he was eventually dismissed. Thereafter, he worked for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in the drawing department, where he learned etching.

In 1855, Whistler went to Paris to study with Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. He became friends with Gustave Courbet, Manet, and Degas, and was exposed to Japanese art as it was just coming onto the radar screens of Western artists. This particular aesthetic, with its conservative palette, flattened space, and overall restraint, would prove to have a profound influence on his later work. In 1859, Whistler moved to England where he remained, for the most part, until his death in 1903.

Eight Whistler etchings are exhibited at The Fralin, together with three by artists who influenced him: Rembrandt, Charles Meryon, and Seymour Haden. His prints from 1858-59 are models of precise, unsentimental reportage.

The woman seated in the field, a parasol half shading her face from “En Plein Soleil” (1858), reveals the influence of his realist friend, Courbet. It also provides a wonderful example of Whistler’s dexterity of line: the tightly controlled hatches that describe the woman give way to free strokes rendering her surroundings.

In his pastoral “Landscape with Horses” of 1859, one can spot on the image’s edge a worker installing telegraph cable—a potent aside referencing the birth of modern technology. It’s easy to imagine Oliver Twist or Gaffer Hexam wandering around the landscape featured in “Thames Police” (1859), a detailed view of London’s riverbank before Victorian urban renewal transformed it.

Over time, Whistler became interested in conveying mood rather than direct narrative, using variations of tone to accomplish this. The title of his most famous painting, colloquially known as “Whistler’s Mother,” is actually “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (1871). This new direction is apparent in his painterly lithotints from the 1870s. Here, the use of tusche (an oily black liquid) washes applied directly onto the lithographic stone enabled him to modulate tonal effects with sumptuous results as in the quintessentially Whistler “Nocturne” of 1878, an evocative scene of boatmen in punt-like craft, shimmering river and far shore with reflections, steam, light, shadow, and haze adding atmosphere and tranquil beauty to the composition. Whistler cleverly used blue paper, markedly enhancing the work’s crepuscular effect.

A brilliant artist, Whistler was also a larger than life figure, variously described as arrogant and abrasive. The famous 1885 William Merritt Chase portrait of him seems to capture his confrontational insouciance perfectly with his provocative pose, wild hair and imperious gaze. As his monocle and cane attest, he was flamboyant in both dress and personality. His relationships with critics were notoriously acrimonious.

In 1877, John Ruskin’s essay “Truth to Nature” famously attacked Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” saying he had flung “a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler, whose personal credo was “art for art’s sake,” would have none of that and so sued Ruskin for libel. Though Whistler triumphed, it was a Pyrrhic victory: awarded a farthing’s damages, he was financially ruined by court costs and the scandal-related decline in sales. He spent the following year in Venice, working on a commission for the Fine Arts Society. The resulting 12 etchings helped repair his image and he eventually regained his financial footing and reputation.

Though he may come across as difficult, Whistler’s only real fault was he knew his own worth and would brook no criticism from detractors who didn’t understand him. While Whistler was building the very foundation of the modern movement, the critics who bedeviled him were bogged down in the Victorian miasma of their own narrow view.

It’s the age-old story of the genius way ahead of his time. Whistler was a vanguard out there on the frontier of art with an approach so revolutionary as to be incomprehensible to most contemporaries. In his words: “Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘arrangements’ and ‘harmonies.’”

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